How does ISIS’ online propaganda demonstrate mechanisms of radicalisation? Assessing cognitive mechanisms of radicalisation with a quantitative analysis of ISIS’ online propaganda

1 September 2016 - 31 August 2017

Awarded to: Dr Stephane Baele

Co-investigators: Dr Katharine Boyd, Dr Travis Coan

Funding awarded to Exeter £ 150,000

Sponsor(s): CREST - ESRC

About the project

The self-proclaimed “Islamic State” is well-known for its particularly intense use of the social media to both at once elicit fear and communicate and promote its ideology. Some commentators have estimated that the group publishes more than 800 official communication items on the social media each month, choosing its topics and language in a highly strategic way (e.g. Winter 2015). This unprecedented use of the internet by a terrorist organisation is not only remarkable in its own right – it is also likely to set a precedent for other violent groups emerging in the future.

Popular knowledge assumes that this prolific use of the internet explains the group’s extraordinary ability to recruit foreign fighters, particularly in Western Europe. Yet recent fieldwork shows that social media-based propaganda mainly works as a secondary layer supporting real-life interpersonal and social dynamics (e.g. Atran 2010; Atran et al. 2014). Acknowledging this role, the present research seeks to identify how ISIS’ online propaganda demonstrates the dynamics of radicalisation by conducting a large-scale, computer-assisted analysis of ISIS’ online content—both video- and text-based—and by linking the results of this narrative structure to the cognitive dynamics theorized to play a role in individual’s commitment to political extremism and violence.